Back in 2005 Jim McGurn of the Company of Cyclists proposed to open Bikeland in Derbyshire, a £33m bicycle-based theme-park. Despite a feasibility study grant of £65,000 it never got off the ground. McGurn was ahead of his time. Today, such a theme-park would ride on the back of cycling’s popularity. At least that’s what Shimano is banking on. The Japanese component maker is to open a Shimano-based theme-park in 2017, converting a former brewery site in the Netherlands into a multi-activity centre. As well as feet-on cycling activities there will be hands-on fishing exhibits, and there will also be a lot of rowing, which is apt because cyclists are great at rowing – cyclists row about helmets, separated cycle infrastructure and whether it’s economically wise to buy inner tubes from bike shops.
The Shimano Experience Centre will also house a café, a museum and, no doubt, a shop. And Shimano isn’t the only one getting into the all-under-one-roof game. BikeVille in Belgium is rising from the ground as we speak. It’s a collaboration between Ridley, BioRacer and a whole bunch of other bike companies. As well as sporting a wind tunnel BikeVille will house a concept store and a “sport restaurant”.
BikeVille is the centrepiece of the Flanders Bike Valley, a tech collective created with financial support from the government of Flanders, and modelled on Flanders Drive, a cluster of automotive companies. Fifty cycle-related companies are now members of Flanders Bike Valley, with some of them based within one kilometre of BikeVille.
In reality, neither BikeVille nor the Shimano Experience Centre are theme-parks as most people would understand them but they’re fascinating nevertheless. BikeVille, in particular, is a concept worth watching, partly because of the cooperation between the organising companies. And the Flanders Bike Valley isn’t the only example of such “clustering”. There are at least two other “Bicycle Valleys” – one in Portugal, and one in Romania.
Bike Valley Portugal is a collaboration between Rodi, Miranda, Polisport and others, and is based in the small but hilly city of Agueda. Brought together by ABIMOTA (the Portuguese association of bicycle, motorcycle and accessories producers) Bike Valley Portugal is organised around the production of aluminium frames and parts.
Unlike the Flanders Bike Valley which is a cluster of companies in close proximity the Romanian Bike Valley is made up of bike and component makers spread a little bit further apart.
Why cluster? It gives the companies involved competitive advantages. Banks have been doing it for hundreds of years, and car companies have been doing it since the early 1900s, copying the bicycle industry which kicked off the clustering around Birmingham and Coventry.
In an era of global competition, rapid transport and high-speed telecommunications there should be little need for geographical clusterings but they still offer benefits such as a pool of skilled workers and economies of scale. But they can also stimulate innovation, even between what would normally be considered competing businesses.
And if clustering is so effective and if other countries are doing it for bikes, the obvious question has got to be why isn’t there a British Bike Valley? In a way, there is. The Mountainbike Centre of Scotland, based at the Glentress trail centre in the Scottish Borders, is a bike cluster of sorts. It has a business incubation service, and is already the go-to place for MTB product testing. Supported with Scottish enterprise money it gives grants to Scottish bike companies. The Mountainbike Centre of Scotland also offers market research, development links with academia and, of course, testing on the world-class MTB trails of Glentress.
OK, so there’s a Scottish Bike Glen isn’t it about time a few companies got together to form an English Bike Valley? Brompton, Muc-Off, Hope, Pashley, Brooks, Carradice, Charge, Fabric and others are not geographically close (three are kind of in Poole, mind) but they don’t necessarily have to be. The secret is cooperation rather than being sited on the same industrial estate.